From plywood to hardwood flooring, to windows, doors, carpeting and more, salvaging building materials can save thousands of dollars. Plus, reusing building materials is about as green as you can get. But how do you know what to look for, how to deconstruct it, and how to reuse it cleverly? Chris Peterson – an expert in home design, repair and renovation, and author of Building with Secondhand Stuff: How to Re-Claim, Re-Vamp, Re-Purpose & Re-Use Salvaged & Leftover Building Materials – has some answers.
Millions of new structures are built across North America every year. At the same time hundreds of thousands of old buildings are abandoned and either left to the ravages of time or quickly demolished and sent to the nearest dump. But that truly is a waste. Those buildings represent a fantastic opportunity to help the environment, save a little money, and incorporate one-of-a-kind design elements into your home.
Many – if not most – of the components that went into building structures that are ready to come down can be salvaged to find new life as reused home-design and building components. Using reclaimed building materials in new ways is part of a larger movement of sustainable building practices.
In contrast to demolition, which sends tons of debris to landfills, the environmentally friendly process called ‘deconstruction’ is the craft of taking apart the structure to preserve every piece that can be reused, repurposed, or recycled.
Lower cost, higher quality
Saving the environment is one good justification for salvaging and reusing building materials. But there are other great reasons as well—saving a little money chief among them. The mini-industry that has sprung up to reclaim and resell used building materials competes with home centres and other retailers based largely on lower price and higher quality.
Depending on whether you’re shopping for heritage wood flooring or looking for a rescued slate slab for a countertop, you can sometimes save from 10 to 50 percent off the price of comparable brand-new material. In some instances, the owner of a building that must come down will let you take whatever you can safely remove, so the materials you salvage will cost nothing more than your labor.
Regardless of the source, you can expect to walk away with material that is as good or better than what you would pick up in the aisles of your local building centre. Just about the only downside is that it may entail more research and work on your part, and much of what you find will not be in the standardized measurements common to building materials today.
The money you save will be just part of your reward. Certain qualities and types of materials – especially woods – are no longer available. Rare types of quarry stone, finely detailed architectural accents, and handcrafted leaded windows are just a sampling of the treasures that can’t be matched on today’s marketplace. In fact, much of the increasing popularity of reclaimed building materials is due to their unique nature and singular beauty.
Working with reclaimed materials
Opening up to the potential of salvaged building products allows for an incredible variety of design possibilities. You can create a showcase fireplace with a granite curbstone mantel; fashion a unique kitchen backsplash from a recovered and refinished tin ceiling; add a distinctive element to your living room with a hickory plank floor; or lay an enchanted pathway through your garden as a way to recycle a pallet of turn-of-the century cobblestones. Once you discover all the options available, you’ll probably wonder why anyone would ever choose to use new building materials.
Incredible diversity – not only among available materials, but between similar pieces as well – is at the heart of what makes salvaged materials so attractive. Time leaves its mark on all of us, but no more so than on the stone, wood, metal, and glass we build with. These materials age gracefully, featuring patinas of intriguing colors and patterns unlike anything you would find on newer products. Older building materials are often irregular, with imperfections that actually add to their appearances. You’ll be amazed at the different looks even among the same types of wood, or two similar bricks or stones.
Choosing among salvaged materials
The actual reclaimed material you’ll be looking for will of course be determined by your project. Some projects can be crafted of anything from barn timbers to granite curbstones. Others, such as a living room floor, lend themselves to only one type of material.
This is the most commonly salvaged material because it is so ubiquitous in both old and new construction. You can reuse wood from all the different areas of a building, including siding, structural timbers, existing wood flooring, and interior paneling. The wood can be used as is, with the scars and marks of use in full display, or it can be resized and refinished to look brand new. Wood pieces can even be milled to serve new purposes, such as reconstituting solid-wood paneling boards into tongue-and-groove flooring. Old wood can find new life as tables, shelves, countertops, mantels, flooring, siding, and more. Entire wood structures, such as doors and shutters, are commonly resized and fitted for service in existing openings.
Many different types of stone and bricks are used inside and outside of buildings. Other types are used to pave roads and paths, and provide edging for sidewalks. All of these can be repurposed to stunning effect in a number of different areas of your home. Fireplace surrounds and mantels are extremely common uses for reclaimed stone. Depending on the architectural and decorative style of your house, cobblestones or certain pavers can make a lovely kitchen floor. Exclusive quarry stones like granite, marble, and travertine can be used as stunning countertops or custom tabletops. Salvaged pavers and bricks are perhaps most at home outside, where they can be used to create a charming pathway through the garden or yard.
Metals such as iron and copper are regularly rescued from buildings being demolished. But because they are generally inexpensive and are so easily recycled, most salvaged metals find their way into the smelter. However, certain types of metal fixtures are well suited to be repurposed as new home-design elements. Plumbing pipes and sheet forms such as tin ceilings are prime examples of metal pieces that can easily be adapted into a room design. You can cover an accent wall with hammered sheet metal or copper tiles for an arresting decorative feature. Use a heating vent grill to craft a coffee table, or make shelves or a pot hanger from copper pipes.
- Glass and ceramics
Most salvaged glass is reused for home design in the form of windows. The unusual shapes of some antique windows and the classic look of leaded glass windows make those options particularly popular. But you don’t have to limit yourself. Stained glass designs are also regularly rescued, rehabilitated and reinstalled in new locations.